Erin McCarley calls the music on her debut album, Love, Save the Empty, a document of her search for authenticity in herself and in others. If that sounds heavy, there’s a reason why: According to McCarley, “Loving You” is about “being honest at the beginning of a new relationship and saying, ‘I have nothing left to give,’ to this amazing person standing right in front of me.” “Sleepwalking” profiles a cynic that can’t hear it come back his own way. For the title track, McCarley was inspired to write a song about the effects stemming from a lack of role models in a parentless world. And yet the 11 songs collected here (songs that ignited an industry-wide frenzy when McCarley performed them at SXSW earlier this year) pull off the trick that all great pop performs: They do heavy philosophical lifting with a lightness that boosts the spirit. This is elegantly crafted, deeply melodic music that resounds with echoes of the Beatles and Aimee Mann, Alanis Morissette and Amy Winehouse.
McCarley grew up in the Dallas suburb of Garland, where she says her parents couldn’t have done a better job raising her and her older sister. “It was a very happy home with very little pain to deal with,” she explains, describing days filled with dance class and choir rehearsal. In a way, though, her ideal childhood led to an unexpected wake-up call later in life. “It kind of gave me an unrealistic view of everything,” McCarley notes with a laugh. “That’s not how the world is, you know?” In McCarley’s music you can hear her charting the distance between fantasy and reality, as well as the heartbreak that inevitably accompanies its discovery.
McCarley’s brand of honesty doesn’t come without the occasional flash of regret. “I’ve looked back at some of these songs recently and thought to myself, ‘Are you serious? I can’t believe I put that out there!’”
Near the top of the list of McCarley’s favorite artists are names like Fiona Apple, Patty Griffin and Greg Laswell (the latter of whom co-wrote “Bobblehead”). “I just love how true and raw their lyrics are,” she explains. Listening to records by these musicians is more than enjoyable for McCarley—it’s inspiring. “I get one line into one of their songs and I have to stop and write my own,” she says. McCarley singles out her favorites’ unique phrasing, the way they’ve taught her to concentrate not only on her words but on her delivery. “Their lyrics are that much more powerful because of the way they sing them.”
McCarley currently calls Nashville home, but she cut her musical teeth in San Diego, where she’d moved after college to pursue a life that didn’t feature music at its center. During her undergraduate days she’d spend weekends singing with a country cover band for extra cash, yet in San Diego, selling clothes in a boutique and hanging out on the beach, she began thinking not just like a singer, but as a songwriter, which satisfied a different artistic jones. “Once I discovered songwriting it became an addiction,” she says now, remembering countless days she spent holed up in her house from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., doing writing exercises (and staring at the wall) while wearing the same pair of linen pants. “Most nights I’d end up with an unfinished song. But when the day would come when all the pieces would align, and I’d know this is a song for people to hear, there is no better release in the world. Those are some of the only times that I can go out at night or sit on the couch next to my loved ones and feel at peace—like, ‘Job well done.’ I can rest, at least for a second.” It was during this bout of creativity that McCarley met producer/writer/keyboardist Jamie Kenney (the rare partner she felt 100 percent comfortable with), and the two began honing the songs that would make up Love, Save the Empty.
“It’s hard for me to write about being happy,” McCarley admits. “I don’t prefer being sad, but it’s a real spot for me. If you met me, I’m not this dark, sulking person, though I’m not bubbly by any means, either. I guess it comes down to the fact that I’m not afraid of being sad. Love, Save the Empty arrives this fall on Universal Republic Records. McCarley will spend the summer laying the groundwork for the album’s release with a pair of tours. Her goal an artist is as simple—and as profound—as they come. “When I’m onstage,” she says, “I’m trying to communicate with every single person out there.”